Donald Lazere, professor emeritus at California Polythechnic, has an interesting piece in Inside Higher Ed where he offers his own take on the conservative critique of the modern academy. While he has some good thoughts, he does (inadvertently, I think) reveal the core reason why so many of us are convinced that something is deeply wrong behind the ivy-covered walls. First, read this rather condescending statement:
Politicians like Mumper [Larry Mumper of Ohio, who sponsored the “Academic Bill of Rights in the Ohio legislature], along with many media blowhards and members of the public who revile professors, appear to have little more familiarity with the nature of humanistic scholarship than they do with that of brain surgery — though they would not presume to tell brain surgeons how they should operate, even in a tax-supported hospital. The former field is at the disadvantage that it addresses public issues on which everyone does and should have an opinion. There is a difference, however, between just any such opinions and those derived from standards of professional accreditation (upwards of 10 years graduate study for a Ph.D. and 7 more for tenure), systematic scholarship, and academic discourse. That discourse is based on the principles of reasoned argument, rules of evidence and research procedures, wide reading and experience, an historical perspective on current events, open-minded pursuit of complex, often-unpopular truths, and openness to diverse viewpoints.
Putting aside the obvious puffery, Lazere does have a point. Within their fields of study, humanities professors do generally have a quite astonishing breadth of knowledge, and their opinions derived from that vastly superior body of knowledge (“10 years of graduate study” should provide some value, after all) are entitled to some degree of deference. I’m just not going to try to debate Foucault with a professor who’s spent a lifetime studying his writing, nor will I engage a specialist in African colonialism in a discussion of the finer points of Belgian rule in the Congo. Their education does not make them perfectly knowledgeable, nor does it mean that their opinions are correct in their fields, but they do know a great deal more than I do.
But then Lazere loses me:
We also invoke Ralph Waldo Emerson’s exhortations for scholars and other intellectuals to “defer never to the popular cry,” to stand up against majority opinion, unjust governmental power (specifically on issues of his time like support for slavery and the Mexican-American War), and corporate plutocracy; in “The American Scholar” he speaks of “the disgust which the principles on which business is managed inspire.” We follow Emerson up with his disciple Henry David Thoreau’s “Life Without Principle” (“There is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay to life itself, than this incessant business”), and “Civil Disobedience”: “Why does [government] not cherish its wise minority?… Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults, and do better than it would have them? Why does it always crucify Christ, and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?
And here’s the problem. It is fair enough to grant scholars a bit of deference in their chosen fields of study, but to go beyond that, to then grant the community of scholars a special place as a class of dissenters is just too much. What is it about 10 years of expertise in a particular field of the humanities that grants a person any greater knowledge or insight into such things as economics, religion, and war and peace? Does a community of “dissenters” really help us arrive at truth and justice, or do they simply reinforce each others existing biases and prejudices? And how is that such a community can be sure that its ideas have merit when they are rarely tested by dissenters within their own community? Enough students have sat through English classes where teachers rail against corporate business practices they know less about than the average CPA to know that the community of dissenters is often simply ignorant and ideological.
To continue with Lazere’s brain-surgery analogy . . . While we can all agree that the brain surgeon is an expert in, well, brain surgery, I doubt Professor Lazere would have much use for his thoughts on the conflict in Iraq, even if the surgeon did have 10 years (probably more) of graduate education and training, including training in systematic scholarship, the scientific method, and critical thinking. And so it is with the freshman English teacher, or the diversity dean, or the team leader at first-year orientation. Studying Socrates or Marx does not make one an expert on world oil markets, no matter authoritatively the opinion is delivered or how condescendingly critics are treated.